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How Activists Are Forcing Change in Green IT

November 19, 2008
Mary Catherine O’Connor

Often, advocacy groups campaign against specific business practices — take the movement to ban BPA from baby bottles, for instance. But when it comes to the electronics industry, non-government organizations are attempting to shift the entire business paradigm.

Rather than urging companies to stop using a given substance or stop using a trading partner, green-minded advocacy groups, such as the Green Electronics Council, Electronics Takeback Coalition, the Basel Action Network, or Greenpeace, want the electronics industry to change the way it sources materials, constructs and powers goods — everything about electronics lifecycle management, from cradle to cradle. And these groups are also working hard to make end users understand that current electronics manufacturing practices are energy-intensive, involve the use of environmentally sensitive materials and need to embrace recycling of e-waste.

How does the work these group do affect IT operations? Will it help enterprises green the data center and desktop computing, or is mere window dressing? Interviews with key players show that the movement clearly helps, although it still has a way to go before it makes a major impact.

Purchasing Power

Back in 2004, a large group of government representatives (including members of the EPA), electronics producers including Nokia, Sharp and Dell, and other stakeholders such as electronics recyclers, convened an effort to establish a national system for managing the reuse, recycling, and disposal of electronics products. While this group, dubbed National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI), managed to scope out protocols and specifications for e-waste takeback, the initiative never really got off the ground. However, some of those involved in NEPSI went on to work on a second project, called Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). Thankfully, this one stuck.

While NEPSI could have formed a national e-waste takeback policy, it would not have held up electronics producers to a higher standard when it comes to the materials they use in manufacturing, nor the energy consumption of those goods. But EPEAT — though it’s a voluntary program — does. What’s more, EPEAT, which was developed by Portland, Ore.-based Green Electronics Council and created through an EPA grant, is taking off because it helps end users understand their role in the electronics supply chain and how their dollars help push producers toward making ever-more efficient and environmentally-benign goods that are responsibly recycled.

EPEAT is comprised of a product registry that is designed to help institutional purchasers in the public and private sectors evaluate, compare and select desktop computers, notebook computers and monitors based on their environmental attributes, such as material composition, design and energy efficiency. It categorizes them at three levels: bronze, silver and gold. EPEAT also offers buyers draft wording that they can include in the requests for proposals for new electronics purchases, so that these requests include requirements for EPEAT-certified goods.

But EPEAT has also been a great motivator to urge manufacturers to create more environmentally-sensitive products, since it fosters competition among companies to do so. EPEAT is the implementation of the IEEE 1680 Standard for Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer products (including laptop and desktop computers, and monitors).

The US Federal Government now requires that 95 percent of the computers that government agencies purchase met minimum EPEAT standards, and the states of California and Massachusetts and the city of San Francisco have also passed measures that require EPEAT-compliant computer purchases.

In 2007, after a campaign spearheaded by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and a student-led subset of that group, called Toxic Free UC, the University of California decided to incorporate a mandate that desktop computers, laptops, and computer monitors that the University purchases must meet the EPEAT standard at the Bronze level or higher.

Yale and Cornell University have also begun purchasing computers based on EPEAT rating. When Yale first began using the EPEAT registr — silver and gold-rated items only — as its standard for purchasing laptop and desktop computers, it was discovered that a good percentage of the computers already met the standard. “We got lucky on that,” says Brenda Naegel, the associate director of community and training for Yale’s procurement department, “and now that we are aware, we have made it a standard.”

Prior to instituting the EPEAT silver and gold purchasing standard, Yale purchased only computers with an Energy Star rating. But using EPEAT marks a huge improvement on Energy Star, from a sustainability standpoint, says Naegel. “EPEAT is so much more all-encompassing, because it takes Energy Star into consideration but also so many other attributes of the lifecycle of the computer and everything that goes into the computer.”

Sarah O’Brien, EPEAT’s outreach director, attended Yale’s first sustainability fair and helped build awareness about sustainability beyond the scope of just computer equipment, Naegel adds.

As for the private sector, there are a growing number of healthcare companies, including Kaiser Permanente, McKesson, and Premier Purchasing Partners, that are using EPEAT guidelines in purchasing computer equipment.

“We are proud to have been associated with supporting the EPEAT program and incorporating it into our procurement programs,” says Dean J. Edwards, Kaiser Permanente’s chief procurement officer, adding that Kaiser Permanente believes that “the Hippocratic Oath to first do no harm, extends beyond the individual member to encompass the communities that we serve.”

Pradeep Saxena, who is responsible for sourcing laptops and computers for Kaiser, says that purchasing from the EPEAT registry does not necessarily mean high cost comes with a high environmental ranking. “The HP computers [that Kaiser recently purchased] were the most cost-effective but also most compliant with EPEAT standard. We didn’t have to choose between being green and being economical.”

And Ingram Micro, a major wholesale distributor of technology products, has included EPEAT ratings information in its product database, so the resellers it serves can then use the EPEAT ratings criteria to help their customers select products.

Grassroots Report Card for Computers

The word Greenpeace conjures up images of impassioned activists risking their lives to stop the progress of whaling boats in Asian seas, or dangerously scaling smokestacks to unfurl a banner to decry a polluting corporation. But over the last couple of years, Greenpeace has also become known as a formidable influencer in the world of electronics, thanks to a quarterly report card, called the Greener Electronics Guide, that Greenpeace has been issuing on the environmental records of computer makers. The first of these report cards was issued in August of 2006 and there have been nine to date. The number of companies included has grown from 14 to 18 and now includes gaming console manufacturers such as Nintendo, in addition to the PCs, TVs and cell phone makers that have always been reviewed.

The rankings of some of the reviewed firms have remained relatively consistent, moving only one or two spots up or down. Others have greatly improved their standing, while a third group seems to get pushed up and down the list with each subsequent report. To improve its standing in the list, a manufacturer must lower the number of toxic chemicals used in its products, make recycling them easier, and work to reduce its over carbon footprint by changing its design and manufacturing practices.

Zeina Al-Hajj, campaign coordinator for Greenpeace International, points to Lenovo as one of the companies that made strides to green its products and business practices.

“Lenovo started reacting,” she says. It ranked dead last in the first report, but within six months it received the highest score. What led to the that high score was an expansion of its free recycling program for Lenovo desktops, notebooks, monitors and servers as well as Lenovo or IBM-branded ThinkPad notebooks, ThinkCentre desktops and ThinkVision monitors. The company also committed to a timeline phase out of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in its products. Lenova even released a press release to highlight its high score in the April 2007 version of the Greenpeace report.

But three months later, in the next report, Lenovo fell to third place, with Greenpeace stating that “closer examination of Lenovo’s takeback and recycling services has revealed some weaknesses e.g. time-limited takeback in Thailand, therefore Lenovo loses points in that criteria. Lenovo also still fails to score any points for providing models on the market that are free of PVC and BFRs.”

“Lenovo has not yet taken any steps to put a greener product on the market and that’s why they have fallen behind,” says Al-Hajj, adding that it should eliminate the toxins by 2009.

The rise and fall of Lenovo on the Greenpeace report card is a good example of how the advocacy group is pitting the companies against each other by ranking each in comparison to the efforts and achievements of the other companies on the list. Lenovo fell in ranking not because it regressed in its commitment to a green agenda, but because it hadn’t advanced it as far as other companies.

Pushing for Cradle to Cradle Management

Aside from lobbying for higher environmental standards and developing tools for making greener purchasing decisions within IT departments, advocacy groups are also working to promote ways for companies to ensure that their used computing equipment is disposed of in an environmentally-responsible manner.

There is a patchwork of state laws regarding how, and by whom, electronics should be collected and refurbished or recycled at the end of their useful life. (See The Promise and Pitfalls of E-Waste Takeback for more details.) But in the absence of comprehensive US legislation (European laws are more broad and hard-hitting, which has led to greater global awareness of the e-waste problem), advocates for responsible e-waste handling are working directly with end users. One way they are doing this, according to Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator for the Electronics Takeback Coalition, is to help institutional buyers with strategies such as including a takeback clause as part of their requests for proposals, so that responsible e-waste recycling becomes another end user requirement for which computer vendors must compete.

The University California system, for example, requires that when electronics devices such as desktop computers are replaced, they must be recycled by environmentally-responsible recyclers who follow standards set forth by the Basel Action Network as part of its Computer TakeBack Campaign’s Electronics Recyclers Pledge of True Stewardship.

Onward and Upward

Advocacy groups are continuing to roll out campaigns designed to deepen the awareness of end users, be they institutional or consumers, about the environmental impacts of electronics — not just of the end product but of the entire lifecycle management and business processes that go into electronics. And as time goes on, there is a growing level of awareness and concern around these topics at the enterprise level. There is also more and more transparency: A recent report shows that 80 percent of the world’s 250 biggest multinational companies are now publicizing their corporate social responsibility policies and data, compared to only 64 percent in 2005. (For more information, see Sustainability Reporting Grows Dramatically Among Multinationals).

Progress is slow, but incremental, said Kyle in a podcast on the status of e-waste takeback: “I think we’re going to see a lot more…companies realize they have that buying power… Shareholders or staff, leadership in the companies [will] start to think, ‘We need to pay more attention to this.'”

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